Thanks to heightened international demand for licensed pilots, Eastern Michigan University (EMU)'s two aviation-related degree programs are experiencing their highest enrollment since the university began offering aviation courses in the late 1980s.
Jerard Delaney, program coordinator of EMU's aviation program, says that when students think about investing a large amount of money in a degree, they look at job market predictions. The aviation job market is predicted to grow by leaps and bounds over the next few years.
"The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association have said that the industry needs upwards of 3,500 pilots just for 2019," Delaney says, adding that demand is expected to hold steady or rise in 2020 and 2021.
Tom Simon is director of marketing and recruitment at Eagle Flight Centre, an EMU contractor that provides flight training on the grounds of Willow Run Airport. He notes that the growing demand for pilots also means salaries have risen, especially for newer pilots.
He says EMU students who go on to work at airlines after graduating are currently making $60,000-$80,000 as a yearly starting salary, while only about five years ago, they were getting $20,000 and would have to work two or three years to get up to $70,000 in salary.
Aviation program picks up momentum
Simon says that in the aviation program's first few years, students would get a flight certification at Eagle Flight and then obtain college credits for that training at EMU, but the pilot-training program has been fully incorporated into the EMU curriculum since 2001.
A total of 56 aviation students enrolled at EMU in fall of 2018, up from 43 the year before. In years before that, classes were between 20 and 30, Simon says.
Students leave the four-year program with a degree in either aviation flight technology for pilots, or aviation management technology, which trains students to manage an airport or other aviation-related businesses.
Aviation flight technology students earn a bachelor's degree with about 124 credits, including 77 to 79 credits from aviation courses, and about 40 or 41 in general ed credits. Students who opt for the management program can add an aviation dispatch certification to their degree to become a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certificated aircraft dispatcher.
Delaney estimates that about 60 percent of aviation students are pursuing careers as pilots while the other 40 percent are taking the business management track.
He says an aviation management degree is particularly useful because of the special challenges associated with aviation.
"The aviation industry is unique in terms of the way it operates, having to take into consideration not just basic business practices but being compliant with all the rules and regulations the FAA might put out," Delaney says. "The safety issue is huge. When we talk about managing a business in the world of aviation, our primary concern is the safety of the public, the end user."
To meet growing demand for aviation degrees, EMU has been growing "across the board," from adding faculty to increasing the number of aircraft the program is using, Delaney says.
Today, Eagle Flight Centre alone employees 15 flight instructors, mostly full-timers. Several students fill part-time jobs as dispatchers and line personnel who deal with answering phones and fueling and cleaning aircraft, among other jobs.
There are a few advantages to taking courses through EMU rather than a "mom and pop" flight training school. The FAA requires less in-air training for pilots who complete at least 60 credit hours of aviation-related coursework in pursuit of an aviation bachelor's degree. So EMU students can obtain a restricted airline transfer pilot (ATP) certificate, which permits a pilot to captain an airliner, after about 1,000 hours of in-air training, as opposed to the 1,500 hours a non-university program would require.
Anna Buchel, a freshman aviation flight technology student from Howell, says EMU's program also gets pilots into the air fairly early in their freshman year. Buchel has friends taking aviation courses elsewhere, and by winter break she had already spent time in the air while her friends had not. Another friend taking aviation courses in the Upper Peninsula had trouble logging hours due to inclement weather.
After becoming interested in aviation in high school, Buchel weighed the pros and cons of various flight schools and decided on EMU.
"This was the best choice for me, from being able to commute to prices to the availability of instructors," she says. She notes that having the flight training incorporated into a four-year degree program was also attractive.
"It sets you ahead," she says. "A lot of kids I know who get their flight training at community colleges have to then go to Ferris (State University) or someplace else (to finish their degrees), but here, you get it all in one."
The proximity of Eagle Flight Centre to the university is also a perk, Buchel says, but that kind of close relationship with a nearby airport isn't the norm. Delaney says Bowling Green State University is the only other flight program nearby that has a similar agreement with a airport so nearby, but the airfield at Bowling Green is quite a bit smaller than the one at Willow Run.
Delaney adds that having Willow Run's cargo airport and the much larger Detroit Metro Airport right down the road is attractive to students for other reasons. Delaney notes that the school helps students find internships at both airports as well as other aviation-related companies in the area, and many go on to find full-time work at those local companies after they graduate.
"For people who want to stay nearby, it's an advantage to be able to get a job in their backyard," Delaney says.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.